By Cathy Serrano
Special to Frost Illustrated
Over the last few weeks as I have been out and about, I have had some people ask me questions about the ICRC (Indiana Civil Rights Commission) signs they are seeing in the local community, most notably on the local bus service, Citilink, as well as radio spots that they have heard which talk about ICRC. They wonder if that means the agency that I formerly headed is being phased out or just exactly what is going on. Well, that is an important question, and since I’ve been asked it several times, I thought I’d just write and try to ease the confusion. The quick answer is “No,” Metro (Metropolitan Human Relations Commission) is not going anywhere, but the longer answer to that question can also be summarized in one word—and that one word is “jurisdiction.”
Jurisdiction is just another way of describing the authority that an agency has to “act.” Jurisdiction can mean a geographical area and it can also mean certain other guidelines, which are established by the empowering statute or ordinance under which that agency is established. In the case of ICRC, the statute provides that their geographical jurisdiction is the entire state of Indiana. Metro’s empowering ordinance gives that agency the authority to act within the city limits of Fort Wayne. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a federal agency, and they are empowered to act on a national basis. Obviously, there is overlap between those three. When that occurs, it is called “concurrent” jurisdiction. So that means that Metro, ICRC and the EEOC all have jurisdiction to act within the City of Fort Wayne.
So where should you go to file a complaint if you believe your civil rights have been violated? Well that is sort of up to you—you have some choice in the matter. You should know that by virtue of their partnership with EEOC, both Metro and ICRC routinely file complaints jointly with EEOC when appropriate. In other words, if you file a complaint with Metro that is also under EEOC’s jurisdiction, Metro does what is called a “dual” filing. ICRC does the same thing—you don’t have to file with both agencies. It works the same with HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and housing discrimination cases. Where appropriate, the case you file with Metro or ICRC is also jointly filed with HUD, again through a partnership with that federal agency.
Metro and ICRC both have websites where you can find additional information, and even fill out a basic complaint or request for information form. Those sites are listed below. Additionally you can get their phone numbers to contact them directly on those sites. If you live in or near the city of Fort Wayne, you can actually visit Metro’s local offices and file a complaint in person. Even if you are not from Fort Wayne, you may still be able to file your complaint there, and Metro will forward it on to ICRC or refer you to another agency as appropriate. You can also simply choose to call or file with ICRC, and a lot of paperwork can be done via mail with that agency. Their main office is in Indianapolis. And, if you choose to do so, you can file complaints directly with the EEOC or HUD, although with the local agencies completing dual filings through their partnership agreements, many people find the local agencies much more convenient.
The next question I often get asked, is when do I need to hire an attorney? Well that is a good question, and the answer may surprise you. The answer is, when you feel that you need one to protect your best interests. There is no need to hire an attorney the minute you file a charge with any of these agencies, but you are welcome to do so. Be aware that once you have hired an attorney, the agency personnel will need to correspond with you only through your attorney, so don’t expect them to maintain direct contact with you. You can wait to hire an attorney until after you find out the agency’s decision, and you can hire an attorney at any time during that process as well. It is really up to you—you get to make that choice.
I also get asked, “Which attorney should I hire?” or “What attorneys are good at employment law?” or some similar question quite a bit. The truth is that there are many very qualified attorneys in the local Fort Wayne area, and in the state of Indiana from which you might choose. The best thing to do is to call the local Bar Association, and ask them for a list of attorneys who practice in a certain area, employment law or housing cases, and they will give you a list. From there you should make appointments with more than one and talk with them about your case. Then—you get to make the decision on which attorney you feel can best represent your interests. I could write an entire article about just this topic alone, but I’ll stop here for now.
Just don’t worry too much when you see those bus ads for ICRC or hear a radio spot about ICRC. Remember that those spots are seen by more people than just the people who live in Fort Wayne, and you still have the availability of the local agency Metro, where you can file your complaint or charge of discrimination.
Cathy Seranno is former executive director of the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission also known as Metro.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 28 print edition.